For the past 10+ years MONOCHROME has been about new watches and although the focus has pretty much always been on “new” – we always blended in a lot of history, technicalities and finishing – there was sometimes the odd story about a vintage watch. But that’s gonna change. Today we’re starting “The Vintage Corner”, our weekly rendez-vous on the topic of anything vintage. It’s my pleasure to introduce the man who’s gonna run our Friday afternoon vintage instalment, book author, watch collector, vintage enthusiast, content creator, Alistair Gibbons.
There were plenty of reasons why we didn’t cover vintage. First and foremost, our core team (which includes Rebecca, Brice, Xavier and myself) is not very knowledgeable about vintage. Sure, we know a bit, but not enough to bring you the expertise that we can do in the field of new watches. The world of vintage is a murky world. I’ve seen too often that the most sought-after Submariners, Daytonas, Seamasters and even complicated Pateks are “modified” to become more collectable. The fraud is on all levels of the vintage watch world, from collectors to esteemed dealers, and without the in-depth knowledge, we at MONOCHROME could make huge mistakes and advice you wrong. That’s why I searched for a proper vintage expert and I’m excited to get this thing started. Alistair already prepared a set of articles for the coming weeks, but we’re first going to kick off with an introductory interview with our newest team member, Alistair Gibbons.
Frank Geelen – What was your first watch and/or your first memory about watches?
I guess when I was a child, my parent’s generation was a big family and the men had all been drafted for post-war National Service, men who were quite serious but funny too, all very smartly dressed, always wearing handmade suits as big guys and would tell you how to look smart in your school uniform, how to tie your tie properly and polish your shoes but the only jewellery they wore were serious watches inspired by their military service. That was when I first noticed the importance of a watch to a man’s attire so to speak.
Alistair Gibbons – When did you get interested in watches?
My father came home one day all smiling and presented my brother and I with an early Casio Calculator watches festooned with buttons. My father, always a modernist in those days, told me to look after it as it was not actually for sale yet in the UK and I should be careful. Well, being a kid I treasured it and then immediately smashed the glass which had all the instructions for the buttons printed underneath… Oops! Thinking I could get the mess I’d made of the watch past my dad I used a hot knife to fashion a new glass out of a tape cassette box and glued it back into the case. My father, I don’t think ever noticed but I managed to get a few years out of it before it eventually died. My next watch was a plain Swatch, then I fell in love with the TAG Heuer advert of the Angler Fish lighting up the TAG 1000 with the green dial, all were quartz but my first ever mechanical watch was an Omega Speedmaster that I spent 6 weeks trying and failing to negotiate a good price for in Hong Kong in the early 1990s when I worked there. That is what started things for me.
How did you get, business-wise, involved in the watch industry?
Well, I had collected watches on my travels as a TV editor but youth and the taxman put paid to that collection. Then life and children came along and I found myself in a city that had installed fibre optic early and I could get 4meg broadband at home. In those days I was already an experienced Ebayer and, like many watch collectors, started buying and selling watches to advance my collection. There were not many of us watch types online back then I remember the Americans, the Germans and the Dutch were there but I distinctly remember France coming online with broadband and indeed Italy.
This was still a hobby but I started being contacted by high fashion shops to supply collections, I worked with Bamfords originally supplying vintage and the odd PVD custom watch as well as setting up a Bremont Forum, Lemania UK and Speake Marin Forums at ATG online. Soon I was supplying vintage watches, selling new watches, designing and selling straps. I made perforated racing straps for vintage Heuers before TAG started remaking them. Also, I was taking pictures of new interesting watch brands, promoting them and when it started working because this was just the beginning of social media. Then in 2006, I could quit my day job and concentrate on watches.
You started a forum, wrote a book… tell us more!
I started a Forum in 2002 to discuss the kind of watches I liked, not just Rolex or the very high-end brands but it was the historical background manufacturers that I enjoyed researching. It was great fun meeting people from all over the world with a common interest. There was a lot of trust in the community and I moderated my place with a light touch using my mantra ‘don’t get too nerdy’. I have restored close to a thousand vintage watches, from Breitling, Rolex, Omega, Zenith as well as Laco, Nevada, Yema and they all have been written about and photographed so an obvious step was to collate a book.
The idea being a book that I can keep adding to, then over time it will end up being a good comprehensive guide of all things vintage “Tic Tok”. My book is called Chasing Time (available here at Amazon) and it is essentially a “sales diary” of watches I have worked with containing 120 in this issue, approximately 480 images, 35,000 words laid out in individual two-page profiles that originally sold the watches through my site www.atgvintagewatches.com (a tired and creaky place now which I am in the process of updating… but it is a lot of work.)
Did you ever buy a watch that was messed with?
Every single watch I have ever bought was not really what it should have been, I can’t tell you how many times I bought a watch from a collector for stock, that he swore blind had been serviced and when my watchmaker opened it for inspection found that it wasn’t serviced just timed. This was not necessarily the collectors’ fault but someone unscrupulous along the way had charged them for it… I have bought watches that have had their dials feet snapped off, (it happens with a massive shock) and the dial glued onto the movement, I have bought a watch made of parts from other watches purporting to be original but hey I just actually needed those parts, not the watch. I have also bought watches with the wrong dial but I had the right one… such is the life of a WIS.
Not that buying vintage is fraught with danger, there are plenty of good dealers, you just have to buy the dealer, don’t bargain too hard and build a relationship. The vintage watch world is not very big so it is all about relationships so be careful what you ventilate.
What are the fundamental guidelines when buying a vintage watch?
Well, I am often asked this like there is a plan. Just think of what you are buying, you are not buying something that is 100% brand new. I have noticed in the last 10 years, brand names have become some kind of guarantee of definite quality. Not necessarily! Also, it isn’t an easy thing to get into, sure you can throw money at things but that still isn’t a guarantee, in fact, it’s often the opposite. Join a good Group or Forum, read and digest. I was a forum member for 6 months before I even opened my mouth, don’t be cocky. There is always more information or knowledge that you don’t know. Buy a library of good books covering the subject, general stuff until you know more and you decide which watches you really want then focus and immerse yourself. Oh, and buy my book (of course).
See you next Friday (December 27th) for our first installment of “The Vintage Corner”